Say, Did You Hear the Story About the Science and Benefits of Being an Effective Storyteller?

Everyone loves a good story and, in turn, a good story is always made even better by a great storyteller. Some people just have a natural inclination for delivering the beginning, middle and end of a story that captivates the listeners. We all know people like this. The highest complement you can pay them is to say “that was a great story well told”.

They are indeed a far cry and a great yarn away from the more common and seemingly endless PowerPoint presentation many of us have had to endure where the speaker drones on and on. Little or any substance rarely stays stuck to the audience’s gray cells a few seconds after the meeting has ended.

The innately skilled storyteller knows how to evocatively set the stage, animate the players, and draw you into the drama, fact or fiction, no matter if the story takes 2 minutes or 2 hours. Moreover, they can readily deliver a verbal and animated replay of something that happened just minutes ago with the same finesse of a story they heard years ago passed down through their family. Such raconteurs know they have this skill and can employ it to communicate with others in a wide variety of situations. Even those who don’t quite have the skill at first can readily be taught to improve their delivery and enjoy the benefits it can bring.

The science supporting engaging storytelling was explored in a fascinating post on the Harvard Business Review Blog entitled Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling by Paul J, Zak on October 28, 2014. To recap the main points, a decade ago, the author’s lab discovered a neurochemical called oxytocin, whose role arises in many social situations. Simply stated, this substance’s activation in the brain is an integral part of experiencing and expressing empathy, trust, kindness and cooperation. More recently, his lab has conducted experiments that have shown oxytocin also plays a role in “character-driven stories”. The more oxytocin released in a subject’s brain showed a relationship to the extent to which he or she is willing to assist other people.

The next step in his research was to study the reasons why storytelling had an effect upon gaining someone’s voluntary cooperation. A key element of this involves maintaining the listener’s attention such that they “share the emotions of the characters in it”, both during and after the story had been told. In the business world, “character-driven stories with emotional content” produce increased comprehension and later recall of a speaker’s main points. Zak advises business clients to start off their presentations with “a compelling, human scale story” to put this science to good use and to persuade listeners. He further describes how stories are quite valuable within businesses to motivate employees, increase sales, understand customer concerns, and solve problems. He also discusses how an “organization has its own story” concerning its founding and objectives.

I highly recommend read the full text of this piece for its highly valuable details and pragmatic lessons. Indeed, it is a story about stories well told.

Whenever I tell a story, either in a business situation or to friends and family, I also try to do the following:

  • Never introduce a story by first telling listeners that the tale you about to tell is the funniest, saddest or weirdest thing they will ever hear. Rather, just start telling it without any introductory adjectives that might raises or lower the listener’s expectations.
  • Be as economical as I can with words and time. Brevity counts and getting to the point quickly always counts.
  • Introduce the key characters first in order to get listeners to identify with the people involved and then move on to the details of the story.
  • Adding a slightly misdirecting component to the narrative can be helpful in distracting the briefly distracting listeners and then bringing them quickly back towards the resolution of the story.
  • It’s always true that timing is everything. Pace the plot so that it continues to accelerate.
  • Humor helps but should be used judiciously depending on the context and subject matter of a story.
  • If you have some room, stand up and move around a bit so as to enact certain key points.

November 5, 2014 Update:

There was a timely post on today* entitled Storytelling 101: Who Are You? by Rachel Parker that fits in well here. The author’s main point is that often strangers in various circumstances will ask “Who are you?” How you reply can potentially turn scenario into a business development opportunity. In today’s highly competitive marketplace, potential client’s want to know, in fact, who you really are before they will consider doing business with you and your firm. Thus, having a compelling story about your company’s origin, products and services, and likewise being prepared to deliver all of this succinctly and effectively can be a valuable skill. I suggest clicking through to the full text for the particulars.

December 19, 2014 Update:

In a very practical and insightful article in the December 12, 2014 edition of The New York Times by Alina Tugend entitled Storytelling Your Way to a Better Job or a Stronger Start-Up there are some helpful applications for today’s marketplace. As concisely stated in this piece “You need to have a good story.” It describes in detail how there are now consultants, charging meaningful fees, with new approaches and techniques who assist people in improving their skills in order to become more persuasive storytellers. Among others interviewed for this story was Dr. Paul J. Zak, who wrote the recent article on The Harvard Business Review Blog which was the original basis for this November 4th Subway Fold post. It concludes with five helpful pointers to spin a compelling yarn for your listeners.


*  As I was writing “ today” I was reminded of the time when I worked with someone named “Tamara” and another colleague asked me “Have you seen Tamara today?” and I could not resist replying “No, but I expect to see Tamara tomorrow”. Fortunately, this did not result in any disruptions in the time and space continuum for either Tamara or myself.


[The most amazing storyteller I have ever heard was the legendary New York City radio personality and satirist Jean Shephard. The following is a review of a biography about him that I originally posted on July 6, 2005 on a much earlier incarnation of The Subway Fold.]

Many people are only familiar with Jean Shepherd’s work from his uniquely charming and hilarious perennial holiday film A Christmas Story. Yet to a large number of people in the metro NYC and surrounding areas his greatest creative contribution was the late night radio show he did on WOR in New York from 1955 to 1977. He wrote five critically acclaimed collections of stories and was a columnist for various magazines.

Shepherd was a local phenomenon unlike any other in the long and rich history of local radio here. Long before the days of concentrated station ownership by a small number of conglomerates, severely limited playlists and call-in formats, Shepherd’s show was a shining beacon of originality, humanity and humor unlike anything else before or after it. Describing the experience of listening to him is always presents a challenge to anyone who never heard him.

I was one of those people who, while I was in high school and college, listened to him faithfully almost every night. Although his show was not for everyone, his large legion of fans were often incredibly devoted to him. He shaped many of our sensibilities about the media as well as our perspectives on daily life. To this day, whenever I come across a fellow fan we immediately have an understanding between us of that shared experience of years of listening to Shepherd’s unique riffs about, among many other things, growing up, life in the Army, his friends and family, modern culture and the travails of living in New York City.

Listening to Shepherd was just like having a good friend over for a talk on the porch. It was as if he was speaking directly to you in a friendly and familiar manner. His uncanny attention to detail, strikingly original POV, embrace of ideas new and different, and most importantly his sense of humor made it essential for us “night people” as he often referred to us, to listen as often as possible. Despite his Midwestern accent, there was something so utterly New York in his voice, delivery and infectious laugh. However, he was by no means a “2 guys walk into a bar” comedian. Rather, he was far more sophisticated while being wholly accessible.

Eugene Bergmann has just written a remarkable biography about him entitled Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd. I first learned about this publication on 5/13/05 when it was the subject of two programs on the local NPR station here, WNYC. The author appeared on both the Brian Lehrer Show and immediately following on the Leonard Lopate Show.

I picked the book up and was completely absorbed by it. Bergmann has accomplished a considerable achievement by skillfully capturing the essence of Shepherd’s life, philosophy and work. To bring order to such a large body of public work and a complex personal life, he began by listening to and transcribed hundreds of tapes of Shepherd’s shows. He then formatted this biography with generous portions of those transcripts throughout the text. This succeeds as the “voices” effectively and seamlessly alternate between the biographer and his subject. Indeed, Shepherd’s voice and delivery are vividly evoked in every section of the transcriptions. In many passages, I even recall hearing them as they were originally broadcasted years ago.

For a faithful listener, this book is worthy and respectful homage to the subject’s multifaceted talents and achievements. Bergmann has found the right language and insight to illuminate the work of an artist who worked in words, imagery and ideas as, Shepherd used to say “a sculptor worked in clay”. While I so fondly recalled many particular shows while reading this book, it more importantly caused me to reconsider how and why so many people were such a devoted fans: He spoke to us and we could relate during a time in my life when our views were constantly changing and being challenged. The author succeeds in deftly building a intricate accumulation and integration of artistic and intellectual reasons for our devotion, never before presented with such clarity, that were always axiomatic for all of Shepherd’s fans.

The book does not shy away from Shepherd’s considerable off-the-air personal faults. While these revelations do remove some of the gloss from long-enduring warm and friendly reputation, they also makes him more human. The performer and the man are brought to life on each page. As Bergmann emphasizes, what Shepherd did, more than anything else, was to examine the human condition. What the author has accomplished so skillfully here is to examine in fine and critical detail, the condition of one uniquely imaginative human.

Jean Shepherd died in 1999. His work and his fans will continue to live on for many years. Even if you never heard his show, read his books or saw A Christmas Story, I highly recommend this book for its integrity, internal consistency and literary accomplishment. Nowadays when modern media platforms, content and influence are changing on a daily and worldwide basis, this is an opportunity to learn about a definitively original media talent.

3 thoughts on “Say, Did You Hear the Story About the Science and Benefits of Being an Effective Storyteller?

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